It is the afternoon on the first of May. The sun is shining, Boston is buzzing with spring and men are waking up on Saturday afternoon to mow their lawns for the first time of the year.
So, do you know where you hockey team is?
A signal is emanating from TD Garden. Boston’s hockey team, once the soul of the city, has regained a swagger not seen for at least 18 years and all of a sudden has people wondering 'is this really the year?’
That is what happens when a down-on-its-luck type of hockey team starts winning big games in big ways in the playoffs. For the second time in the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Playoffs the Bruins won a nail-biter overtime game at home, this time taking the series opener against the Flyers 5-4 on a triumphant goal by center Marc Savard in the extra frame in his first game back since missing nearly two months with a Grade 2 concussion.
“Oh, it was a great shot,” forward Mark Recchi said. “Good feeling for everybody. We came out in the overtime and we played pretty well so at least we got rewarded for it. What a heck of a game, it’s fun to be a part of.”
Does it seem plausible that the Bruins have the best shot of the four major Boston sports teams to win a championship this year?
The Sox dabbling in to the “run prevention” model has not exactly been paying early dividends. The Celtics have stumbled down the stretch and are about to go up against the best player in the NBA in Lebron James in the playoffs. The Patriots look like they are rebuilding after being embarrassed by the Ravens in January.
Then there are the Bruins. When Dennis Green was coach of the Arizona Cardinals he had the infamous line after losing to the Chicago Bears in dramatic fashion "They are who we thought they were!" Well, the Bruins are starting to look like the team we thought they were … last September.
That was before the team started laying bricks across the NHL, back when the residents of the Hub thought their juggernaut from 2008-09 was about to steamroll the league once again and was considered an early Stanley Cup contender. Are we finally seeing a glimmer of that team?
There are not many days in professional sports like there was on Saturday. The Bruins were up two goals three different times, only to see the Flyers come back in the back half of the third period to tie it at four and send it to overtime. Then, as if a kids story written by Matt Christopher, Savard comes through in the clutch in his emotional return to the ice. He said the other day that he is no savior for the Bruins.
That does not mean he cannot be a hero, at least for a day.
“I believe in this team and we can accomplish big things if everybody plays our game and we are going to punch it in, just like we did in overtime. So, hopefully, we can do that,” center David Krejci said.
Here is the Hat Trick from Game 1:
STEADY IMPROVEMENT ON THE 5-ON-5
The Bruins have been lacking all year in the even-strength goal-scoring department. Their ability to score 5-on-5 in the '08-09 season was a huge reason they dominated the Eastern Conference and won the top seed heading into the playoffs. They led the league that year with a 1.42 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio, blowing away the next closest team in the league, the Devils, at 1.25. This season the Bruins sunk near the bottom, registering a .95 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio, good for 19th in the league and it was a major factor that the projections done by the front office did not directly lead to the results they had been expecting.
In the quarterfinals against the Sabres, Boston was outscored 14-to-eight in even strength goals and advanced mostly on the strength of their power play and penalty kill. In Game 1 on Saturday, four of the Bruins five goals were even strength and it looks like the team has started to turn a corner to a team that resembles more of the 2008-09 squad and less of the dismal team that played January through March in the Hub.
A lot of this has to do with the Bruins strength down the middle. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are in the midst of streaks of great play that make fans sit on the edge of their seats when either is on the ice or touches the puck.
The pair delivered for the Bruins yet again on Saturday. Bergeron delivered an assist and a goal as the Bruins took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission and Krejci scored what seemed like the game-winner with Boston’s fourth at 7:45 in the third period. Each of those three goals were even strength
Then there was Savard adding the game-winner, also on the 5-on-5 (though there was a delayed penalty but the man had not yet come to be an advantage).
“Well I guess it happened pretty quick because all I saw was the referees arm go up and then the puck came by. He just, without hesitation, took a whack at it and shot it and it went top corner,” coach Claude Julien said of the game-winner. “From that area, [Savard] had some nice goals, somewhere along that faceoff circle, right at the top of the circle. He shoots it well and get it in there pretty good.”
The even strength goals by the Bruins were important because, for the first time in the playoffs, the penalty kill failed them. Philadelphia went 2 for 5 on the power play and broke Boston’s streak of 21 straight kills to start the playoffs. The first was a Chris Pronger shot that got through Rask’s pads at 15:48 of the second period to make it 3-2 and the second was a rebound flip from Mike Richards to make it 4-3 at 12:37 in the third.
The ability of the Bruins to score even strength will play a large part in determining how the series against Philadelphia plays out and how far the team will go in the chase for the Cup.
So, imagine that Jonathan Papelbon blows out his shoulder tomorrow and is toast for the rest of the year. That would mean that Daniel Bard would become the closer, Hideki Okajima the primary setup guy and so on. Everybody moves up a slot in their respective roles and overall the bullpen becomes a little weaker. In baseball, this phenomena is called “bullpen chaining” and is seen often throughout the course of the year.
Well, the Bruins have been dealing with “line chaining,” the hockey equivalent, all season long. Savard comes back and Boston has an opposite effect on the chain as Vladimir Sobotka gets bumped to the fourth line center spot and Shawn Thornton heads to the press box as a healthy scratch.
Then, in his first shift of the game, Marco Sturm crumples to the ice after he misses a hit on Flyers defenseman Matt Carle on the boards as Philadelphia cleared the puck from its own end. He could not make it off the ice and Rask had to Tuukka Rask had to cover on the other end to stop play so trainers could attend to the forward and Bergeron and Krejci helped him off the ice and down the tunnel. He would not return and there is no update yet on his condition. Julien said he will provide an update on Sunday morning when he knows more.
Couple Sturm’s departure with Vladimir Sobotka getting hit into the net and missing most of the rest of the first period and only getting 15 shifts for 10:50 for the game and Julien naturally watching Savard’s minutes in his first game back and the chain starts getting spread a little thin.
“If have to keep the stretches short because when it not it is a tough game but, playing with nine, 10 guys going pretty well and playing hard, short shifts at the end of the game and it feels good,” Krejci said.
Krejci logged 32 shifts for 25:37 of ice time and Bergeron had 35 shifts for 23:01 while Milan Lucic, Daniel Paille, Mark Recchi, Miroslav Satan and Michael Ryder all registered more than 20 minutes of ice time.
“Well, it’s never easy when you lose a guy on his first shift and you know, we kind of have some set lines that we wish we could have been using. That’s been basically the way we’ve operated,” Julien said. “With all the injuries we’ve had this year, everybody’skind of played with everybody so … it helped in that manner and we found a way again to get through it.”
Steve Begin, normally the fourth line checking center and penalty killer who was bumped to the wing when Sobotka was moved to his line, stepped into Sturm’s spot and immediately paid dividends. He scored the first goal of the game at 2:39, his first in 30 career playoff appearances.
“You have to be ready to play with anybody out there when you lose a guy on his [first] shift. It is a huge loss for us, I don't know how bad it is but hopefully we will see him back soon,” Begin said. “Well, you know we are supposed to know what other guys are doing and their tendencies. I mean, we've played with pretty much everyone here through the season with so many injuries here. We have to talk and be ready on the bench because sometimes you don't expect it and they call your with a different line and you have to make sure you have the right guy so you don't get called for too-many-men-on-the-ice. So, you have to be alert.”
Though Begin only ended up with 12:08 of ice time, his ability to bounce from the center to the wing, up or down line on a dime was important for the Bruins on Saturday.
“He took a couple of shifts right away on that line and scores a big goal, the opening goal. I thought he played well. He spotted here and there tonight. The thing about [Begin], you can put him on the wing, you can put him at center, he’s played both positions and is very comfortable with it. So it gives us that luxury of having some versatility in our lineup,” Julien said.
The Flyers are also going through their own version of line chaining, but for them it is far more painful. Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne both had toe surgery on April 23. That has forced coach Peter Laviolette to give big minutes to guys like Ville Leino, he of all 68 games of NHL experience (32 shifts, 25:02). Danny Briere and Mike Richards also put up big minutes for Philadelphia and the lack of depth because of the loss of Carter and Gagne stretches every other forward a bit thin in their roles and assignments.
A CRACK IN BOUCHER?
Talk about line chaining, the Flyers are on their third-string goaltender after losing Michael Leighton and Ray Emery in regular season. But Brian Boucher has performed well down the stretch (well enough to get the Flyers into the playoffs, at least) and was on fire in the quarterfinals against the Devils, leading the league in goal against and save percentage.
Yet, it looked like Boucher was going to get broken down early by the Bruins as they had leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 before Philadelphia came back on Rask and sent it to overtime. Krejci had one of the prettiest goals of the night when he got the puck on a Satan shot that got through traffic and he had all the time he needed to wait, wait, wait on Boucher, get the goalie to jump out of his skates and put it in the corner of the net.
“I know that he had a really good first series," Krejci said. "I think he is a pretty good goalie. I don’t think he is better than [Ryan] Miller, but he is a pretty good goalie and when he is on the top of his game he is tough to beat but today wasn’t his game but that doesn’t mean that Game 2 won’t be his game so, you just have to continue what we were doing today. Just, keep shooting and, you know, play our hockey and keep goals around out net.”
Like the rest of the Flyers, Boucher looked like he was rusty after their eight-day layoff in the first period though he got stronger as the game went along.
“I think everyone was kind of in the same boat. When your team’s not playing well there are usually more chances and more opportunities than a goaltender wants or than we’re used to giving him. think we move together as a team. We started poorly, in the second we gave up the power play goal… and the third was our best. The chances were definitely in our favor. As the game went on he got stronger,” Laviolette said.
Yet, one has to wonder how long a goaltender with a 9-18-3 regular season record with an .899 save percentage and 2.76 goals against can continue to stand on his head. He was great against the Devils but, outside of Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey tends to be as offensively challenged as the Bruins. Yet, in the playoffs, Boston has not been as low scoring a team as they were through those aforementioned horrible months of January through February. The 2009-09 Bruins would have ate a guy like Boucher for lunch and if this team smells blood in the water, they will pounce. The Bruins did not blink when staring down likely Vezina Trophy winner Miller so it is fair to think that they will not let Boucher steal a game on his own if they can help it.
“I think we should be pretty pleased with the way we played our second and third period. Once we got skating and got our legs about us we did a good job five on five,” Boucher said. “Our power play did a good job for us tonight. We battled back. We know that this is not going to be an easy place to play. I thought we played a solid game even though first period was a little sluggish. We have to have a better start in Game 2.”